Wrestling Without Fans is the Last Entertainment Standing

Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.

Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?

As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.

AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.

This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.

WWE has the advantage of currently building up to WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.

I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.

These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.

The Women’s Elimination Chamber Was The Best Worst Match

One of the personalities you unfortunately become acquainted with when you get way too hardcore into wrestling is Dave Meltzer, who has reported on the industry for years and created The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer is maybe most known these days for his star ratings of wrestling matches, which started with a 0-5 scale but now has had multiple scale-breaking matches, including a recent AEW match he rated six stars. His ratings feed a concept that has taken hold of the wrestling industry: the idea of a match as an artistic performance that is held up to a critical standard of excellence, and fans now often rate matches themselves based on how “crisp” the “workrate” is. Meltzer’s system in particular favors matches with high athleticism, long run times, dramatic kickouts and false finishes — the recent AEW tag match he gave six stars was basically four wrestlers hitting every move that ever existed for over 30 minutes.

I didn’t like that match a whole lot, and I’ve increasingly become alienated from what the typical wrestling fan perceives as a “great match.” Wrestling is an art form, but I don’t think it should ever overtly resemble art. You should feel like you’re watching people fight, not like you’re watching people put on a great performance. And too many of these highly acclaimed matches are more like Cirque Du Soleil demonstrations, with everyone trying to “steal the show,” but in the process losing the thread of this being a simulated competition that it should look like you’re trying to win. This is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy from Meltzer’s scale — his influence on wrestling has shaped what a generation of wrestlers think “great wrestling” looks like, and they put on matches looking to score high on his star ratings scale rather than to tell a story or make people emotionally invested.

Context is also something I think about a lot in art, and in wrestling it is particularly important. If every match is a “banger” where the competitors trade moves back and forth, kick out of everything, and engage in non-stop frenetic action, it has a numbing effect. Part of what once made these matches great was that they were rare and special, but now you can see an indie-style 20 minute “classic” every week, if not even more often. I’ve felt this in particular watching NXT, where everyone is so highly trained and athletic, but it leads to a sameness in the matches. My exhaustion of this style of wrestling has led to a weird effect where I have started to appreciate matches that just tell a coherent story of reasonable length and don’t engage in any of these modern wrestling tropes. Exhibit A for this happened last Sunday with the women’s Elimination Chamber match.

The chamber is a WWE match type where wrestlers are locked in pods and there is a convoluted rules system that basically leads to them wrestling in this dangerous structure. There is an underlying expectation to these gimmick matches now, that they’re going to be full of exciting action and creative moves. In the chamber match that happened earlier in the night, a wrestler climbed to the top of the cage and did a backflip onto all the other wrestlers, which wowed the crowd. With the women’s chamber match, which main evented a long three-and-a-half hour show, WWE subverted those expectations and essentially put on a match that was intentionally unentertaining and bad — and I loved it.

I realize that sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain. To start with, everyone knew who would win this match — the winner would get a match against this blog’s hero Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, and Becky had already started feuding with Shayna Baszler, the former long-reigning NXT champion. Along with that, the other five women in the match (Asuka, Natalya, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) had all either lost to Becky already or not been portrayed as serious competitors. So there was no drama in the outcome, which led to a disinvested crowd. The way the match played out pissed them off even more: once Shayna got in the match, she just systematically eliminated all the other competitors, and multiple times she cleared the ring and just stood around gloating while waiting for the next victim to come out of their pod. So a large chunk of this main event match was, incredibly, just Shayna Baszler walking around the ring taunting the other competitors while no action occurred. Everyone knowing Shayna would win and then Shayna easily dominating made this match unappealing while also adding a lot to the story, as there was a crushing and depressing inevitability to her victory.

Part of why I loved this match is that it had a verisimilitude to it that you rarely see in wrestling anymore. I remember watching Floyd Mayweather fights, and I would get pissed off that he dominated boxing in such a boring and workmanlike fashion that wasn’t fun to watch. I would be desperate to see a boxer step up and kick his ass, but no one ever could because he was too good. The psychology of this match felt similar: this wasn’t about every wrestler getting to showcase their artistic abilities, but about Baszler, a cage-fighting specialist, just being much better than everyone else and focusing only on winning the match and abusing her competitors rather than being entertaining. Now obviously wrestling should maintain its unique quirks that separate it from just being simulated UFC, but this was the perfect way to establish Baszler as a total killer, as well as a vicious heel who you hate in part because she “ruins” matches like this with her methodical style. This was a match that had a purpose to it that told a more resonant story than “look at the moves these wrestlers can do.”

The cost of this presentation was that WWE put on a main event that most people hated, and not really in the “getting worked” way where they’re upset at a heel but still hooked into the story. It remains to be seen, but I think the benefits of this are worth it: it makes future Shayna matches more compelling, especially her upcoming showdown with Lynch, because she seems unbeatable and is hated by fans for being “boring.” Ideally, that can be paid off with a satisfying moment when Baszler loses, and she’s already set the template in NXT, where both of her title losses were the kind of joyful moments that make me love wrestling. It also creates a context where you don’t know that every single main event is going to be a 30-minute thrill ride, or that every gimmick match is going to have the predictable high spots and excitement. In a sense, this match died so that other matches could live.

Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.